HC Deb 19 December 2000 vol 360 cc134-5W
Mr. Jim Marshall

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the outcome of the Fisheries Council held in Brussels on 14 December. [143617]

Mr. Morley

I represented the United Kingdom at a meeting of the EU Fisheries Council in Brussels on 14–15 December, together with Rhona Brankin, Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs in the Scottish Executive, and Mrs. Brid Rodgers, the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development.

The Council agreed by qualified majority, with Belgium and Greece voting against and Italy abstaining, on total allowable catches (TACS) and quotas to apply in 2001 EU Waters and for EU vessels fishing in waters where catch limitations apply. Details of the agreed TACs will be made available in the Libraries of the House.

Following from the advice of fisheries scientists in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the Commission proposed severe cuts in many TACs, notably for cod and hake, reflecting the poor state of stocks and the need to hold fishing effort at a level which will assist the recovery of depleted stocks. In addition, the Commission proposed cuts of 20 per cent. for a large range of stocks which may be caught with cod and hake, including prawns (nephrops) and flat fish.

I successfully argued that these cuts went beyond the science and would be excessive in their application. Taking measures to enable cod stocks to recover was a key priority, but this should be done by carefully targeted measures to reduce fishing effort, protect spawning and juvenile cod and improve the selectivity of fishing gear. I am pleased to report that such measures will be developed in close consultation with fishermen and scientists under the Cod Recovery Plan, which the Council agreed would be adopted early next year. There is also to be a corresponding Hake Recovery Plan.

By acting to protect the cod and hake stocks through recovery plans, it was possible to secure smaller cuts than the Commission had proposed, while still respecting the scientific advice. This particularly applies to flat fish and nephrops. For these, the agreed cuts are now generally 10 per cent. or less. Also, it will be possible to increase nephrops and other TACs if it can be shown that the cod or hake bycatch in these fisheries is low. Improvements were also secured in megrim, haddock and monkfish TACs and the cut in hake TACs was reduced from 74 per cent. to 41 per cent. Our quotas were also improved because Hague Preference was applied on all those stocks on which I judged that it was in our national interest to seek it. As a result of these changes the total UK quotas agreed were some 4,000 tonnes higher in cod equivalent tonnes than in the Commission's proposals. This means that the estimated loss of quota value to the industry in 2001 is reduced by £35 million to £72 million.

There is an urgent need for action to protect stocks of deepwater species and the Commission had made proposals for the introduction of TACs and Quotas on nine such species. However, the impact of the proposals would have been of limited value because the stocks are fished by non-EU states whose activities would have been unaffected. Also, the scientific advice suggests that other management measures may be appropriate. Accordingly, the proposals were not adopted, but the Council committed itself to address the question of how protection for these vulnerable and over-exploited stocks could most effectively be improved in early 2001.

The Commission also presented a communication on the possibility of setting TACs on a multi-annual rather than annual basis under precautionary management strategies. This approach will apply first to cod and hake. The Council agreed that the Commission will continue its work in this area.

The Council reached agreement in principle on the funding of fisheries control activities and on the consolidation of technical measures for highly migratory species like tuna and swordfish. The Council adopted a decision provisionally applying from 1 January 2001, the recently negotiated Fourth Protocol to the EU-Greenland Agreement; Portugal abstained. The Commission reported that negotiations were continuing on a new EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement, though with little progress so far.

In bilateral discussions with Denmark I agreed that we would have joint discussions in early 2001 on the North Sea sandeel fishery. These will cover possible reductions in the size of the TAC and adjustments to the bycatch arrangements which would reduce the allowance for bycatches of fish for human consumption.

The outcome of the Council represents a balance between the need to conserve fish stocks for the future and the avoidance of disproportionate cuts in fishing opportunities in 2001. I recognise that the fishing industry faces a difficult period in responding to the poor state of stocks and we will be having discussions with them early in the new year to evaluate the situation.